Hyping the Missing Link

Been meaning to discuss this all week, but I’ve been real short on time. Last week I was a little bemused when the announcement of the discovery of Darwinius masillae (also known simply as ‘Ida’) sprang forth suddenly and overwhelmingly, fully-formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. Usually news on this level is either preceded by plenty of whispers and leaks, or otherwise is released and then builds into a snowball. But the ‘missing link’ news hit full force, with proclamations that the discovery would “change everything”, that the fossil was the “mising link” in primate evolution and so on. Unbelievably, even Google modified its logo in celebration of the announcement. Then, when I saw that the History Channel already had a documentary on DVD and a book devoted to the discovery, ready for purchasing, I really became suspicious.

But then, I’m a goofy anti-science guy, so it’s to be expected that I’d see a conspiracy here. So it was gratifying that other, more scientific types, also smelt a rat. Carl Zimmer, on his science blog ‘The Loom’, looked at the timeline of the release of information, with all roads leading to a PR event rather than a scientific announcement. P.Z.Myers then took umbrage at the hype and the P.R. control of the event (although, to be fair, P.Z. takes umbrage at seemingly everything). And Brian Switek than listed why the discovery was overblown (although still spectacular).

There’s little of this criticism in the mass media though, and it would seem the iconic imagery of the Ida fossil has now burned itself into the public consciousness as the ‘missing link’. I think though that most of that is down to some smart PR, rather than any conspiracy to bend people’s minds. I still am wondering though why Google made the logo change…

Editor
  1. Argh, what can you say.
    Argh, what can you say. Every fossil is a missing link as P.Z points out (he quite likes cephalopods by the way!).

    The fossil is amazing and its pretty interesting for some of its common features, but needs to go through the full blown peer review process before lay people like us let it fill our minds with apparent factoids.

    To take a stab at the media:

    Lay people are not too interested in the extreme detail within any field, we like the headline grabbing, world/mind changing, science. The ‘x can cure cancer’, ‘scientists show anti-gravity’, ‘the universe exists on a brane of multidimensional space’ etc type stories.

    These are fine and enjoyable, but they are hypothesis rather than science. They are just the ideas before the big guns get fired to try and prove or disprove them. Much damage can be done in the public mind if these ‘horizon’ ideas are taken as mainstream then seen to change often (since they are hypothesis).

    Perhaps only 1 ten millionth of scientific knowledge is portrayed in the media, and the exquisite, but boring stuff never makes it. Obsessing with the horizons which are blurry and it is amazing we even have a glimpse of them can lead to easy philosophical challenges to them, as seen.

    The more honest view of science is that most of it does not change in a big way. Major theories have overturned old ideas, but if you look at them they also include the old ideas (unless they were complete garb), they are just better ways of describing them (usually in more detail). There is also a mindset of ignoring that often the modern scientific ideas displaced pre-scientific ideas, or areas where there were just assumptions rather than evidence based concepts. The media plays its role in this whole misconception.

    This is an example of part of the above. The media should be much better than they are in so so so many ways.

  2. I watched the documentary
    I watched the documentary about the fossil on the BBC and it was very good – they went to great pains to underline that it was silly to even talk about a missing link.

    It was a good quality piece that didn’t dumb anything down, going into the details on preservation, primate/monkey evolution and how we can place it into its proper context within the family tree.

    Of course, it is clear you can’t boil that down to a simple sound bite, so I suppose the scientists swallowed their pride and let the press run with the “missing link” nonsense in the hope it gets enough people interested so they hang around long enough for the scientists to hit them with all the information.

    It is a really impressive fossil and a wonder that deserves to be appreciated on its own merits, not some cheap PR puffery. However, I would say that as I’d have read about it anyway – how many other people would have missed out if it hadn’t been for the hype? Ah well, even this backlash has helped focus more attention on the fossil and the important information 😉

    1. I didnt see it
      I didnt see it unfortunately, though i’d be inclined to trust the Beeb to produce something of better quality than the likes of Discovery etc.

      For the likes of general scientific understanding and its affect on the quality of conversations occurring daily in the general public around dinner tables across the planet, what is soaked up sub-consciously is more important and unfortunately something that a good documentary suffers to impact.

      Shame really.

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